On March 13, 1943, German forces occupying the Polish city of Krakow began a two-day final assault on the Jewish ghetto there, expelling those they did not kill on the spot to either a labor camp or death camp.
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Jews had lived in Krakow since at least the 13th century. By September 6, 1939, when German troops conquered the city, Jews made up about a fifth of Krakow’s population – some 56,000 out of 250,000. By November, as refugees poured in from the vicinity around Krakow, that number had risen to 70,000.
Krakow was made the capital of the General Government, as the Third Reich called those parts of Poland that it occupied but did not annex. Hans Frank, the governor-general of the regime, had his headquarters there, which may explain the Nazis’ declaration in May 1940 of their intention to make it the “cleanest” city in the General Government.
‘Cleaning up’ Krakow
The first stage in cleaning up Krakow was removing all but 15,000 Jews, those who were permitted to stay being the one who were most fit for physical labor. Those who left were resettled in rural areas outside the city, and those who remained were forced into the Podgorze district, on the right bank of the Wisla River. Non-Jewish residents of Podgorze were moved into the homes evacuated by the Jews in areas like the Kazimierz district.
The ghetto in Podgorze was officially established on March 3, 1941, with four families crowded into each apartment, and food rations limited to 100 grams of bread per diem and 200 grams of sugar or fat per month. Access to the ghetto was through four gates, windows looking out onto the city beyond Podgorze were bricked up.
The Germans established several factories within the ghetto, one of which was Oskar Schindler’s German Enamel Products, which later moved to the Plaszow labor camp outside the city.
The beginning of the end of the ghetto came on May 30, 1942, when “Operation Krakow” commenced. At first some 4,000 Jews were deported to Belzec death camp. Five months later, an additional 4,500 were shipped there. Both events were accompanied by mass murders in the ghetto’s streets.
In December 1942, the ghetto was divided into two zones, with people who were still fit for labor moved into one, and all the rest into the second.
In anticipation of the end, members of the Zionist youth organizations Bnei Akiva and Hashomer Hatzair banded together to form a Jewish Fighting Organization. Their strategy was to attack German positions throughout Krakow, rather than make a stand within the ghetto. In their most successful assault, carried out in cooperation with the communist resistance, they killed 12 German soldiers in an attack on a café often frequented by the occupiers, on December 23, 1942.
The final liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto began on March 13, 1943. The residents of Zone A, those who were fit, were moved to Plaszow, while those in Zone B were murdered in or near their homes, or in the case of several hundred of them, sent to Auschwitz.
By December 1943, little trace remained of the ghetto.
At the war’s end, some 4,200 Jews returned alive to Krakow, less than a tenth of the city’s original Jewish population.